The Bodhisatta was once a royal chaplain’s son. Before the Bodhisatta was born, the king and his chaplain, close friends since childhood, were both upset at being childless. They decided that if either of them had a son, they would treat him as both of their sons; a son born to the chaplain would become a prince and a son born to the king would inherit the chaplain’s wealth.
One time the chaplain saw a wretched woman with seven strong, healthy sons, but no husband. He asked how she got her sons and she said it was by praying to the deity of a banyan tree at the city gate. The chaplain went to the tree and shook a branch, asking why a beggar woman gets seven sons, while the king, who offered the deity a tribute of one thousand coins every year, gets none. He threatened to cut down the deity’s tree if she did not grant the king a son within seven days. Each day he came back to repeat his threat and on the sixth, she realized he was serious.
The deity asked the gods of the four directions and the twenty-eight lords of the goblins, but none would grant a child. Indra, king of the gods, however, agreed to help her. He found four gods in his heaven with great merit—they had previously been weavers on Earth and together gave one fifth of their earnings as alms—and he told them they must go be born on Earth to the king’s chief consort. Not wanting to be burdened with royalty, they requested being born into the chaplain’s family instead, and said that once they were old enough, they would renounce the world and live as ascetics. Indra agreed.
The chaplain returned on the seventh day with some strong men bearing axes and demanded an answer from the deity. She cleft the tree trunk and came forth, telling him that he would soon have four sons who would become ascetics. The chaplain demanded that at least some of them go to the king, but the deity said it was not possible. So the chaplain accepted her gift and assumed he could somehow prevent them from renouncing the world when the time came.
The four sons were born to the chaplain’s wife in quick succession, the Bodhisatta coming first. Hoping to hinder the four young brothers from eventually becoming ascetics, they were made to work with elephants, horses, cattle, and goats. The king had also banished all ascetics from the entire kingdom so there was nobody to inspire them.
When the Bodhisatta was sixteen years old, the king and his chaplain wanted to make him the king so he would not run off and become an ascetic. To test if he was ready, they dressed as ascetics—hair in a big top knot, dirty, and robes made of tree bark—and went for alms at his home. To their disappointment, the Bodhisatta was thrilled to finally meet real holy men and he offered them water and food.
The pair revealed themselves and their purpose, but the Bodhisatta ignored their pleas to start a family and serve as king and decided to renounce the world right then and there. Life is impermanent, he told them: “Even as I speak with you, sickness, old age, and death are approaching.” He gave thanks to his father and the king and departed the city followed by his attendants and a throng of people a league long who had heard his words and understood his noble quest. The Bodhisatta divined that his brothers, parents, and many others would follow in his path, so he took up abode along the Ganges River near the city to wait for them.
The next day the king and his chaplain, in the same disguises, asked the next oldest brother to take the throne. But he felt just as the Bodhisatta had, and with a company of people one league long he went to be with the Bodhisatta, who greeted him and all other comers while seated floating in the air. On the next two days the two younger brothers similarly chose asceticism over royalty and led league-long crowds to the Bodhisatta’s camp on the Ganges.
After a night of feeling old and alone, the chaplain decided to follow his sons. He gave his wife his fortune and left with a following of sixty thousand brahmins. The next day the chaplain’s wife felt the same and took the brahmin’s wives to the Bodhisatta’s camp. Then the next day, when the king learned his chaplain and wife had joined their sons as ascetics, he sent men to their house to take all the money they left behind.
The king’s chief queen, who had been swayed by the Bodhisatta’s message, was angry at the king for his attachment to wealth and wanted to teach him a lesson. She heaped dog meat in the palace courtyard with snares all around it and vultures swooped down to get some. After eating all the meat, the vultures noticed the snares around. They knew they could not fly straight up with such full bellies, so the clever vultures vomited up their food and flew away safely. The greedy birds stayed and ate the vomit from the others and got caught when they flew away low to the ground because of their weight.
The queen took the king to see the snared vultures and explained that taking the chaplain’s treasures was the same as eating vomit. The king repented and praised his wise queen for saving him. They both decided to follow the Bodhisatta in an ascetic life. The king departed right away that same day, followed by a line of courtiers three leagues long, and the queen, after opening the doors of the palace’s gold storehouses, went the next day with three leagues worth of ordinary citizens behind her. With the city nearly deserted, the Bodhisatta finally left his camp for the Himalayas, leading a twelve-league-long procession that grew as people from other parts of the kingdom joined.
By the time Indra saw the Bodhisatta on his march, the line of followers reached thirty leagues. Indra sent Vissakamma, heaven’s chief builder, to construct a monastery thirty-six leagues long and fifteen wide, stocked with everything necessary for a religious life, including trees that magically bore a variety of fruits. Vissakamma also used his powers to banish all spirits, dangerous beasts, and hideous sounds from the area.
A king from a nearby kingdom heard of the Bodhisatta’s renunciation and went to see the abandoned city. The site of the discarded treasures made him and his followers want to become ascetics with the Bodhisatta, so they went to join him. Soon after, in the same manner, six more kings renounced their thrones and their wealth and went to the Bodhisatta’s monastery. By following the teaching and the example of the Bodhisatta, not a single person living with him went to hell after death.
In the Lifetime of the Buddha
One time while talking to his disciples about the Great Renunciation, which was the beginning of his path to enlightenment, the Buddha told them this story as an example of a similar renunciation in his past.
The king and queen were earlier births of the Buddha’s father and birth mother. The chaplain, his wife, and the Bodhisatta’s three brothers were earlier births of Maha Kassapa, Bhadda Kapilani, Anuruddha, Moggallana, and Sariputta, five of the Buddha’s top disciples. All the others who renounced the world were the Buddha’s present followers.